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    Mural Pays Overdue Homage to Memphis Change-Makers

    J. Dylan Sandifer

    The early morning sun and shadows unveiled Downtown’s new upstanders mural on November 22. 

    The mural, on the side of the local Facing History and Ourselves Memphis chapter, faces the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum pays homage to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other luminaries of the civil rights movement. 

    Across South Main, the mural at 115 Huling Avenue highlights lesser known leaders of Memphis. Those featured include Ida B. Wells, Rabbi James Wax and Rev. Billy Kyles.
    Several of the speakers at the unveiling noted that the political moment is ripe for the statement the Upstanders mural makes. “Truth can be difficult for people to absorb. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell it,” said Terri Lee Freeman, president of the National Civil Rights Museum.

    Although the artwork represents leaders who are no longer living, Facing History hopes those who see the mural will look forward and find inspiration to be upstanders themselves.

    “The mural us not a history lesson, it is a challenge to conscience,” says Facing History board member Kerry Hayes.
    “It does not ask you to be empathetic, it is not asking for unity or respect. It doesn’t ask you for education even, it asks you for courage and to listen to your conscience and when your conscience speaks to stand up and do something. It asks you to get close to a problem and be disruptive.”

    The piece honors people in the Memphis community who chose to take positive action in the face of injustice.
    Ida B. Wells was an African-American journalist and activist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the United States during the 1890s. Wells was forced to flee Memphis in fear for her life after she wrote about the lynching of three black business owners.
    Lucy Tibbs risked retaliation by providing key testimony to the U.S. House Select Committee on the 1866 Memphis Riots and Massacre in which 44 African Americans were murdered and scores of black churches, homes and schools were burned.
    Maxine and Vasco Smith are honored for their efforts during the Civil Rights Movement, touching everything from school desegregation to mobilization of voters in the African-American community.
    John T. Fisher II helped keep the civil rights flame alight after Dr. King’s assassination. As a community organizer and leader, he helped create more business opportunities for African Americans despite backlash from the white community.
    Charl Ormon Williams labored as women’s rights activist, particularly as it intersects with education. She fought against discriminatory hiring practices for women in the school system and became the first superintendent of Shelby County Schools in 1914. She championed women’s right to vote and an end to school segregation.
    Dr. Shelden Korones founded the United States’ first neonatal intensive care unit at a time when Memphis was facing one of the highest infant mortality rates in the nation, especially among African-Americans and the economically disadvantaged. His newborn center at the Regional Medical Center is still active today and has treated more than 45,000 premature babies.  
    Nina Katz was a holocaust survivor who helped establish the Memphis chapter of Facing History and Ourselves.
    Many of the honorees, like Reverend Frank McRae and Rabbi James Wax, used their religious leadership roles to inspire inter-faith dialogue and community growth.
    Rev. Kyles was chosen as the last addition, after passing away in April of this year. Kyles, who was a pastor at the Monumental Baptist Church, was a member of the Memphis Civil rights Movement and witnessed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Other honorees include the clergy who risked their lives in choosing to care for ill Memphians during the Yellow Fever epidemic; Bishop Carroll Dozier, who welcomed immigrants after the Vietnam War and helped foster Memphis' rich Vietnamese immigrant population and T.O. Jones, a sanitation worker who led the infamous 1968 strike alongside Dr. King.
    “We will consider the mural a success if it inspires people young and old to think about the variety of ways people have worked to stand up for justice and to create a more inclusive community,” said Marti Tippens Murphy, Executive Director of Facing History and Ourselves’ Memphis chapter. “We want to inspire people to action.”

    The mural was painted by artists Nelson Gutierrez and Cedar Nordbye. Facing History and Ourselves collaborated on the public art project with the UrbanArt Commission, the National Civil Rights Museum and the Downtown Memphis Commission.